Eastern Theater versus Western Theater: Where the Civil War Was Won and Lost, Part One

Part one in a series.

This series was put together from one of my extended graduate school research papers. The sources used were the current research between 2007-2008, obviously the historiography of the Civil War expands on a monthly basis, thus some of the “current research” in the paper is no longer exactly current.



The Theaters of the Civil War. Map courtesy of http://www.civil-conflict.org/civil-war-battles/theaters-of-civil-war.htm
The Theaters of the Civil War. Map courtesy of http://www.civil-conflict.org/civil-war-battles/theaters-of-civil-war.htm

The American Civil War was and still is the bloodiest contest ever fought by the United States. Between 1861 and 1865 there were over 10,000 battles and engagements between the Federal and Confederate troops. These engagements resulted in over 620,000 deaths, making the American Civil War the costliest war ever undertaken by the United States. Still, the American Civil War is not entirely understood not only by those casually interested in the war, but even by some Civil War historians. The historiography of the war has traditionally focused on the climatic action in the Eastern Theater of the war, often to the exclusion of the critical action which occurred in the Western Theater of the war. This theater encompasses much of what is today the Mid-West, following the Mississippi River south to the Gulf of Mexico, and then turning east to the Carolinas. This massive theater of the Civil War was essentially where the war was won and lost. Yet the focus of many historians and Civil War enthusiasts traditionally has been on the east and on its battles, commanders and social impact. The Eastern Theater of the war was primarily a stalemate; it could even be described as something of a cat and mouse game between General Robert E. Lee and a slew of Union commanders. The theater stretched from modern day West Virginia to the Atlantic Ocean, and then south from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to just south of Petersburg, Virginia. This is a relatively small swath of land to act as an arena for warfare, and though it did prove to be very important during the Civil War, historians have often placed too much influence on it to the exclusion of the Western Theater.

It is my contention that the Western Theater was the key strategic and decisive arena of the Civil War, and that the Eastern Theater has taken precedent in the minds of Civil War veterans, modern scholars and Civil War enthusiasts alike for a myriad of reasons, including the proximity of eastern battlefields to major population centers, the disproportionate casualty figures among the major battles of both theaters, army politics coupled with news coverage of the time, and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause ideology in the post-war period of reconciliation. I will examine how the war in the west enabled the Union forces to become victorious in the Civil War, and how similarly the Confederate management of the Western Theater hurt their chances of gaining independence from the Union. I will then outline how contemporary wartime leaders helped foster a belief in the overall importance of the Eastern Theater and of its key figures, as well as how the press perpetuated this focus. I will also examine how post-war literature, personalities and battlefield preservation continued the trend which began during the war of emphasizing the Eastern Theater to the exclusion of the Western Theater.

Eastern Theater Map-Courtesy of the Civil War Trust. www.civilwar.org
Eastern Theater Map-Courtesy of the Civil War Trust. www.civilwar.org

The major corridor of Civil War in the Eastern Theater stretched from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania southward to the Petersburg, Virginia. Within this 200 mile corridor some of the most famous battles of the war were fought, including Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, some of the near legendary battles which instantly embody the war to many. Many of the most famous commanders also fought in the eastern region of warfare at one time or another, including Grant and Sheridan for the North and Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet for the South. More than 200,000 men became casualties in the small area, yet in the end the east was a long and drawn out slugging match between two great armies, where little was actually accomplished. Over the four year duration of the war, small gains were made and lost in a back and forth seesaw in which neither side gained much territory or advantage. Southern forces tried to gain territory north of the Potomac on three separate occasions and all three times the Southern forces were forced to withdraw.

In contrast, the theater of operations in the Western Theater was vast. Edward A. Pollard, the wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, noted that the south occupied “more than 728,000 square miles, and most of this mileage fell in the western theater.” Also falling in this great expanse of land were the critical battles of Shiloh, Stone’s River, Chickamauga and the siege of Vicksburg. At these battles and others, famous generals Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman cut their teeth, preparing them for eventual victories in the Eastern Theater and overall success in the war. In the Western Theater, Grant and Sherman created the winning combination that the north needed to eventually win the war, learning how to move large armies and supply them, and at what vulnerable points to hit the enemy. The western commanders targeted key forts, supply bases, rail centers, and major road junctions. Keying in on specific targets allowed the Union forces in the west to slowly but steadily capture key objectives, amassing an ever increasing amount of land under their control. All of their accomplishments in the west were vital to the Union war effort. The massive territory gained and the way in which the Union forces were able to use this territory to slowly constrict the Confederacy’s transportation and their ability to supply themselves was one of the biggest military factors leading to eventual Union victory. The war in the west broke the infrastructure of the Confederate war machine, inflicted greater psychological damage on the southern civilian and military population and became a breeding ground for quality officers for the Union cause. A short history of the war would be constructive to show how the Union forces were able to win the war in the west, while the Confederate forces, whose attention was often focused elsewhere, effectively lost the war in the west.


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